The Lumber Industry in Duluth (1880s–1970s)

The Mitchell McClure sawmill in West Duluth. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

In 1855 Henry W. Wheeler famously walked from St. Paul to Oneota and, with machinery shipped from Detroit, built the first sawmill in what would become the city of Duluth along the bay at about Forty-Fourth Avenue West. Pioneers J. B. Culver and William Nettleton started the first sawmill in Duluth Township. The Wheeler mill burned in 1870, two years after it halted operation. By then mills had popped up on western Lake Superior’s shores wherever log rafts, and later trains, could reach them — on the north shore from Duluth to Beaver Bay and along the south shore from Superior to Ashland. Historian Dwight Woodbridge reported that in 1894 the following firms were operating sawmills in Duluth: Mitchell & McClure; Merrill & Ring Lumber Company; Duncan, Brewer & Co.; J. B. Stevens; Peycott, Kimball & Barber; C. B. Murray and Co.; B. B. Richards Lumber Company; Hubbard & Vincent; W. P. Heimbach; Scott-Holsten Lumber Company; Howard Lumber Company; M. Carrol; and Herman Becklinger. In northern Wisconsin, nine mills operated out of Washburn, Bayfield, and Ashland alone; it was said that the sawdust generated by the mills covered all of Chequamegon Bay.

In the 1880s area mills produced an average of 10 million board feet a year; in 1890 they produced 150 million feet. By 1894 thirty-two mills employed 7,700 in Duluth and Superior — and more mills operated along the western Lake Superior shores. Twin Ports milling peaked in 1902, when 443 million board feet were produced. During the first ten years of the twentieth century over 3 billion board feet of lumber came out of Duluth’s mills, but just over 1 billion feet was cut from 1910 to 1921, the year many declared the industry played out. Indeed, the sawmilling industry had been in decline since at least 1910, when operations in Duluth dropped to just six major sawmills. Lumber mills operated as close as they could to lumber camps, and by then most of the old growth forests in the area had been cleared; it no longer made sense to operate a mill in the Zenith City. In 1922 only one mill operated out of Duluth; by 1927 it was gone.

Logs reached the mills either by rail or water, and the mills converted the raw material into lumber. The logs were placed into a barker, a machine which stripped off the bark. Once stripped, sawyers ran the logs through a variety of saws, starting with the double gang, a large set of parallel blades powered by water that sawed the logs into boards. Gate saws (sometimes called sash or frame saws), which sat in a frame and moved up and down by power generated from the mill’s waterwheel, were also used. (A gang saw was a set of gate saws working in unison.) Ripsaws cut the boards to narrower widths. The edgerman trimmed the boards’ edges, which afterward were cut to length with a cutoff saw. In the industry’s early days, lumber was cut manually using whipsaws or pit saws, which were operated by two men, one of which literally stood in a pit while sawing; each board was cut individually. All the saws were maintained by the filer, highly skilled at sharpening saw blades. Finally the boards were placed in a large shed called a drying kiln where steam heat dried them out. After the lumber had dried, off-bearers carried the finished product away to the lumberyard, where it awaited transport by train or ship.

Newly married and graduated from the University of Michigan, young Zar D. Scott brought his bride to Duluth in the 1870s, where he used “a wheelbarrow and a rowboat to haul materials from the wilds of Park Point to his shop.” In 1879 he and David Holsten began operating a sawmill on Lake Avenue South, forming Scott-Holsten Lumber. In 1890 the firm acquired the Graff Little Company, closed its mill, and moved into a new Scott-Holsten mill near Twenty-Fourth Avenue West and Michigan Street. There the firm built a drying kiln, sash and door plant, office building, and warehouse. Besides those who worked the mill the firm employed five hundred men in lumber camps. At its peak the mill cut 6 million board feet per year. The company changed its name to Scott-Graff in 1900 and, like other area mills, gradually withdrew from logging and sawmill activities. Working with the University of Minnesota in 1908, Scott-Graff became a pioneer in reforestation when it seeded and hand-planted 142,250 white pines, 3,100 white ash, 41,750 Norway spruce, and tens of thousands of other species on lands its logging operations had cleared of old-growth timber. By 1927 the sawmill had shut down and Scott-Graff turned its focus to millwork. As World War II began, Scott-Graff concentrated on government defense contracts to build wooden invasion barges and ammunitions boxes. The company’s support of the war effort earned it an “M Pennant” from the U. S. Maritime commission. Pacific Mutual Door Company purchased Scott-Graff in 1967 and the Duluth plant became a distribution warehouse. In 1978 Pacific Mutual closed the plant and sold the property to the Duluth Transit Authority which demolished the Scott-Graff buildings and built a bus maintenance facility.

In 1890 Jethro Mitchell of Cincinnati, Ohio, and William C. McClure of Saginaw, Michigan, invested in a sawmill in Duluth to cut lumber being harvested in northern Minnesota. Mitchell remained in Cincinnati, but McClure moved to Duluth, setting up housekeeping in the Spalding Hotel and later established an office in the Lyceum Theatre building across the street. When the Mitchell & McClure Sawmill opened in 1891 at Fifty-First Avenue West along the bay (pictured above), its owners claimed it was the largest in the world, with a 2,400-foot dock to serve cargo ships. While the impressive facility was outfitted with the latest machinery, the mill was second in capacity in the United States at the time, just shy of that of the Young Mill in Clinton, Iowa. Still, it could produce over 3 million board feet of lumber in one week. In 1894, at the peak of the Minnesota logging industry, Mitchell and McClure employed 200 workers in the West Duluth mill and 450 loggers in the woods. The company built sixty houses and a boarding house near the sawmill for employees.

In 1903 the Alger Smith Company purchased and took over the mill’s operation. In September 1920, with the clearing of most of the white pine and the decline in the lumber industry in northern Minnesota, the sawmill was dismantled. According to a newspaper story about the mill’s demolition, much of the lumber from the sawmill was sold to individuals who used it to build garages in West Duluth. A paper plant was built on the site in 1988.

The Duncan Brewer Sawmill was established in Duluth in 1887 and in 1892 built a sawmill at Thirty-Ninth Avenue West. In 1902, having run out of lumber to cut, the mill was purchased by the Red Cliff Lumber Company. Red Cliff operated the mill until it closed in 1913.

Huntress & Brown set up shop on Grassy Point in 1890, but only lasted sixteen years.

Grassy Point was also the site of Merrill & Ring, another former Michigan outfit that moved to Duluth after running out of lumber in Michigan. Like many other sawmills, Merrill & Ring invested in more than just their sawmill. In 1899 the firm established the Split Rock Lumber Company to hire lumberjacks to harvest an estimated 200 million board feet of timber on land it had recently purchased. It then built a logging railroad to bring the logs to the mill on St. Louis Bay.

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Logging the Arrowhead

From Greetings from the Arrowhead: The North Shore & Canoe Country, A Postcard Perspective of Historic Northeastern Minnesota, copyright © 2007, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.

Much of the logging in the western Lake Superior region took place in the Arrowhead along the lake’s North Shore (northern Wisconsin was also logged thoroughly, as were Isle Royale and the Apostle Islands). Minnesota lumberjacks felled enough timber between 1891 and 1924 to produce nearly eight billion board feet of lumber.

The work was hard and the conditions cold; the logging season stretched from November to April as the frozen ground prevented oxen and draft horses from bogging down under their heavy loads. At the work site, the foreman oversaw everything, from the building of the camp to tree selection — even where the trees should fall (a timber cruiser or “landlooker” was sent ahead by lumber companies to scout which stands of trees to harvest). A logging crew typically consisted of two sawyers, a swamper, a chainer, a teamster, a sled tender, a decker, and a groundhog.

The sawyers notched trees with an axe then worked in pairs with a cross-cut saw to take the tree down; on a good day a team of sawyers could cut up to one hundred white pines. Swampers trimmed limbs off felled trees, cleared brush, kept roadways clear, and removed manure.

Teamsters (also called skidders) used horses to pull felled trees from where they were cut to landing areas where they were later loaded and sent to lumber mills. If the tree was less than a mile from the loading area, it was dragged out with chains (attached by the chainer to a go-devil, a wishbone-shaped tree crotch); when trees were felled further away, the groundhogs stacked logs on sleighs pulled by teams of oxen or draft horses using cant hooks. (Horses were later replaced by steam powered tractors called log-haulers, which could pull several sleighs). The road monkey was the man in charge of building and maintaining logging roads, often made of ice so the sleighs could move more easily. Along downhill grades of the ice roads, a worker called the hayman-on-the-hill threw down hay to slow the sleighs so they would not overcome the teams of horses pulling them.

One site of the North Shore’s logging heyday has become a stunning spot to view fall colors. Heartbreak Ridge (located northwest of Schroeder on Forest Road 166, west of the Sawbill Trail) takes its name from its steep grade, which was often too much for even the sturdiest of horses when it was covered with ice and snow. Consequently, teamsters could not move logs up and down the rise, and bypassing the ridge created extra work; they spent more time removing fewer trees, thereby making less money, and breaking their hearts.

Once at the landing area, deckers made parallel stacks of logs so they could more easily be rolled into the river for transport to the mills. In the water men tied the logs into giant rafts which they floated or towed downstream to Lake Superior and the mills. The men who worked these rafts — called rivermen, river drivers, and riverhogs — used a cant hook to maneuver logs. Their task was called cordelling: walking along the river bank, keeping the logs moving wherever boats could not help navigate the rafts. Occasionally they had to walk out on the logs to keep a raft moving. This job was the task of the birler, a highly skilled river hog who wore calked (spiked) boots and used small, quick steps to spin logs into place as he moved about a log raft. After a successful run bringing logs to the mills, birlers would sometimes compete with each other, two on a log, trying to see who could make the other fall off; this activity developed into the sport of logrolling. Occasionally logs would pile up during a drive, creating a literal logjam. In extreme cases, dynamite was used to clear the jams (remnants of jam-clearing blasts can be seen along the Cross River).

Once a raft was brought to Lake Superior’s shores, logging outfits leased tugs, steam barges, and scows to tow them to mills in Duluth; Ashland, Wisconsin; Baraga, Michigan; and other mill towns. Later trains were used to transport the logs; flat cars were loaded at first by a loading gang of groundhogs using jammers, crane-like devices powered by horse (they were eventually replaced with steam loaders like those pictured in the postcards on the facing page). Lumber companies laid hundreds of miles of track to harvest trees on the North Shore. Trucks have been used since the 1930s.

The success of the logging industry rose and fell with the economy — when Duluth boomed, so did timber production. Major logging outfits included the Schroeder Company, which logged along the Cross and Temperance rivers, and the Alger-Smith Company, the largest operation to log the Arrowhead. Logging reached its peak during the first decade of the twentieth century and was thought all but dead in Duluth by 1920. Still, it hung on through the twenties, but was hit particularly hard by the Great Depression and the creation of the Superior National Forest, and never quite recovered. In 1941 the last logging railroad was dismantled.

Some logging still takes place in northern Minnesota, but most of it is done outside the Arrowhead region. Today’s loggers use heavy machinery rather than hand tools, and transport logs on flatbed semis. But some things never change: in January 2006, Minnesota logging companies reported that production had been slowed by the unusually warm winter, causing logging trucks — like the teams of oxen and draft horses before them — great difficulty when moving their heavy loads over the soft, unfrozen ground. Heartbreak Ridge all over again.

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Lumber Camp Life

From Greetings from the Arrowhead: The North Shore & Canoe Country, A Postcard Perspective of Historic Northeastern Minnesota, copyright © 2007, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.

Life in a lumber camp was no stack o’ flapjacks, although much of it revolved around the cook and his crew, which included a helper called a cookie and a chore boy known as the bull cook. The camp woke at 5 a.m.; breakfast came an hour later. The jacks had twelve minutes to eat, and the cooks allowed no talking (most likely to thwart criticism that could escalate into mutiny; if the crew was dissatisfied with the chow, their recourse was to stop work in protest, an action called “walking the cook”). They then went straight to work until 11:30 a.m., when the bull cook brought them flaggins, hot lunches packed in large cans. At noon they were back to work and toiled until the sun set. After a leisurely twenty-minute dinner, the loggers occupied themselves by relaxing on long pew-like seats called deacon’s benches, repairing clothes and equipment or playing a few hands of cards. Lights went out at 9 p.m. Besides the jacks and the cooking crew, the camp was populated by the camp’s clerk, called an inkslinger. Most camps were small; a camp of forty to fifty men was considered large.

On Sundays the men were allowed to bathe and boil up their clothes (washing them by placing them in boiling water), write letters home, and pack their beds with fresh straw. On days off they would travel to Duluth to spend their money. The Schroeder Company actually built two saloons and a brothel in order to keep men in camp on their days off — too often a trip to Duluth was extended by a stay in the local jail, and missing jacks slowed production. When a camp needed workers, they relied on recruiters to fill the roles; these men were known as man-catchers.

Logging was dangerous work; with men slinging axes, saws, and cants — as well as trees falling and logs rolling — injuries were commonplace (a broken arm or limb was called a cracked stem). Consequently, many loggers ended up in the hospitals of Duluth and Superior. Sister Amata of Duluth’s St. Mary’s Hospital realized that lumbermen were rarely flush with money, so she sold those who worked the lumber camps a precursor to health insurance called “lumberjack hospital tickets” for seventy cents a month. The cards guaranteed the jacks medical care and a bed. It was one of the first plans of its kind in the nation. Nuns who worked for Superior’s St. Francis Hospital sold a similar plan to both lumbermen and dock workers for an annual “donation” of five or ten dollars.

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